By: Our Correspondent

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, in major speeches in China and Myanmar, has unveiled a significant diplomatic agenda that goes well beyond his country’s pressing domestic needs, making a maritime axis his signature international message and serving notice that Indonesia will be a presence in the South China Sea.

Jokowi, a former small city mayor, is nonetheless demonstrating a strikingly sophisticated approach to international affairs. He first alluded to plans to turn his country into a maritime nation during his five-year term of office in his inaugural address in October. 

He expanded that message at the APEC meeting in Beijing on Nov. 10, telling businessmen he plans to build 24 new seaports as part of a plan to expand Indonesia’s maritime infrastructure. Then on Nov. 13  at the East Asia Summit in Myanmar he said the sea would have an increasingly important role in Indonesia’s future. In short, he said, Indonesia will assert itself as a maritime nation, becoming a force between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.  

The comments in Myanmar, made before the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations along with the leaders of Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the US and Russia, appeared to send a message that his country would play a major role in the South China Sea, where China and the US have been squaring off amid rising tensions over the past half-decade, exacerbated by the territorial claims of a half dozen littoral nations.

In Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, in a brief five-minute address, Jokowi underscored Indonesia’s ambition to take its place at the center of geographic, economic and political changes sweeping the globe and changing the balance of power from west to east. First and foremost, he said, Indonesia must protect its own archipelago of 18,200 islands, only 8,800 of them even named, in a sea of 8.8 million sq. km.  

Indonesia, he said, “should assert itself as the World Maritime Axis. This position opens opportunities for Indonesia to develop regional and international cooperation for the prosperity of the people.”  

His Maritime Axis doctrine, he said, rests on five pillars that include ensuring regional security as well as safeguarding navigational safety and maritime security, a regional role that the US has played since World War II.

Those five pillars, he said, include rebuilding the country’s maritime culture, maintaining and managing its sea resources and establishing sovereignty over sea-based food products, which currently are poached almost with impunity by international fishing interests; prioritizing infrastructure and maritime connectivity development by building sea tolls and deep sea ports while also improving the shipping industry, logistics and maritime tourism; ending “the sources of conflict at sea, such as fish thefts, violation of sovereignty, territorial disputes, piracy and pollution; and building its own maritime defense power. That means a significant increase in the number of patrol and other combat vessels.

In his October inaugural address, Jokowi made repeated references to the sea, indicating an urgent need, as Southeast Asia’s biggest country with 250 million people, to fulfill its mantle as a significant regional maritime power, cooperating with neighbors while protecting its fishery resources from over-exploitation, whether by locals or foreigners.

Jokowi has also indicated he would shift defense spending from the army to the navy and has namd Indroyono Soesilo, a relative of former Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati, as Coordinating Minister for Maritime Affairs, with a broad remit running from fisheries to ports, inter-island shipping and natural resources.  Although there have been statutory problems in creating the super-ministry, the transport, maritime affairs and fishery, tourism and energy and mineral resources ministries will all fall under Indroyo.  

Jokowi said that because of its importance he chose the Asian leadership meeting to express his ideas about Indonesia as a global maritime fulcrum.

In alluding to problems in the South China Sea, where China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan have squared off, he said the seas must not be “used as a platform for the seizure of natural resources, territorial disputes or maritime supremacy.”  He called on all parties to exercise restraint and seek solutions based on international law.  China so far has refused to permit arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

It is uncertain what challenges Jokowi will face in turning his vision into reality. Since the late strongman Suharto took over the government in 1967, Indonesia’s defense forces have been organized into territorial commands dominated by the Army with the aim of maintaining domestic stability inthe face of fractious regions, some of which didn’t want to be a part of Indonesia at all, including what is now Timor Leste and Papua. 

The Army continues to receive the bulk of a defense budget that amounts to about only about 1 percent of GDP. While the country has the largest navy in Southeast Asia, it is only slightly larger than that of Thailand, with two operational submarines and three under construction, six frigates and two under construction, 10 corvettes, 55 aircraft, 21 missile-carriers, 12 minesweepers and assorted other craft. By contrast, the tiny island of Singapore has 143 aircraft alone including advanced versions of US-supplied F15s and F16s. 

In 2005, the Ministry of Defense set out a Minimum Essential Force (MEF) of a naval force of 274 ships with enhanced strike and patrol capabilities to be built over the next two decades, up sharply from its current level of about 150 ships of various kinds.

Shifting limited resources to the navy, which currently has about the same number of personnel as the army, will be a delicate task. It may explain why, for the first time since the overthrow of Suharto a conservative retired army chief of staff, Ryamizard Ryacudu, has been given the Defense Ministry.  Jokowi has hinted that he will continue to augment the defense budget, which is expected to grow to 1.5 percent of GDP. 

Despite the increase, the military budget is comparatively small compared those of with other major Asian countries, which average defense spending of about 2 percent of GDP. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks defense budgets, across the region, aggregate defense budgets rose by 5 percent to US35.9 billion in 2013 and are expected to grow to US$40 billion by 2016, more than doubling since 1992.